Why Aircraft Carriers Sail On


Have aircraft carriers become obsolete?  Since 1949, analysts have argued that some combination of strategic bombers and cheap anti-shipping weapons have rendered the aircraft carrier a relic. The latest round in the conversation over the continued viability of aircraft carriers was spurred by Robert Haddick’s Foreign Policy column suggesting that improvements in long range strategic airpower and ballistic missile technology could render the carrier irrelevant. 

There’s no single answer as to why the carrier persists, but the experience of the last sixty-five years has helped give us a handle on the persistent utility of the flat deck aviation warship. While individual anti-access platforms are inexpensive, developing an anti-access system of systems requires immense investments of time, treasure, and human capital.  The PLA has undoubtedly created a formidable set of weapons to defeat U.S. carriers, but it has done so at the expense of other capabilities.  Haddick notes “For the price of a single major warship, China can buy hundreds or even thousands of anti-ship missiles.” Indeed, China (and the USSR before it) has foregone the development of offensive, power projection platforms in no small part because of the need to invest heavily in systems to counter U.S. carriers. 

Moreover, governments find a way to use aircraft carriers that doesn’t involve high intensity combat against peer opponents. However expensive they may be, U.S. carriers have proven infinitely more fungible than the array of missile boats, short range submarines, and advanced missiles that the PLA has deployed to counter them.  A U.S. carrier can show the flag outside the Strait of Hormuz, support relief operations in Haiti, or kinetic military operations in Libya, while an armada of DF-21D ASBMs can do little but sit and wait. 

This is why states continue to build (and buy) aircraft carriers even at great trouble and expense. A carrier may never run the risk of an anti-ship missile during its long lifespan, but it will likely contribute to the national interest in some fashion. The prestige offered by a major, modern capital ship may seem an ephemeral goal to spend the national treasury on, but prestige also constitutes influence; the arrival of an aircraft carrier at a regional port of call carries more diplomatic weight than an attack submarine or destroyer (witness the concern over the deployment of Admiral Kuznetsov to the Mediterranean). This is particularly true in a crisis, whether natural or manmade; aircraft carriers have the capacity to influence events ashore that neither strategic bombers nor surface ships possess. We should think of the procurement priorities of China, India, and Japan in these terms.

Given that future missions will force flexible demands on aircraft carriers, we may continue to see a shift away from expensive super-carriers and towards multi-purpose warships such as the USN’s amphibious assault vessels.  The enormous expense of the largest, most capable aircraft carriers will prove a greater danger to their continued relevance than the anti-access systems designed to destroy them.  However, this development is likely only to change the priorities of designers, rather than to eliminate the type altogether. 

March 5, 2013 at 08:14

Forget about the carriers. Worry about the carrier’s weapons and that of the task force.

February 14, 2013 at 02:10

Right! you don't leave an aircraft carrier alone… but if by chance you get a shot at one, you fire everything you have!  

A ship you could perhaps leave alone is a Russian Kirov-class battlecruiser.

February 7, 2013 at 11:12

Yes…and then the rain of nuclear fire would begin.

January 25, 2013 at 02:23

Martin the Brit… I suggest you re-read both US and UK history from 1941 onwards.  Starting in1941, carriers sank the Bismark, were widely used in multiple major engagements with the Japanese to win the war in the Pacific, ferry aircraft for the North African campaign, provide convoy escorts and attack U-boats in the battle for the Atlantic. US and UK carriers provided air support in the Korean War.  Carriers had wide use and a great impact in the Vietnam war.  More recently, the UK used carriers with great success in the Falklands, and the US employed carriers against Iraq. Don't blame the RN and US if their adveraries weren't up to the match.  The latter two cases are also good examples of the use of power projection.  None of the adversaries were natives with spears.   There are also scores of examples where carriers from the US, UK and France have been used in low intensity conflicts and for humanitarian assistance/disaster relief.  Are aircraft carriers with or without their supporting strike group ships invulnerable?  Of course not.  But they have proven their utility across the full spectrum of combat operations time and again for over 70 years.

December 31, 2012 at 07:42

Well, as a Brit I've just read through all this American stuff, and how powerful/invulnerable the warships are, but question:
Was 1941 the last time they were tested, or do we count the one day trip to Grenda, against natives carrying spears.
Answers will be interesting.

December 9, 2012 at 03:43

this hasn't been true since the 60's

CL Anderson
November 19, 2012 at 05:54

This article entirely misses the point.  Every military technology has a usefulness lifecycle since the first ape picked up the first rock to strike another.  Later, another ape threw a rock to defeat this superior short range attack with a longer range one.  This is the type of attack Haddick mentions at the end of his article.  Robot missles projected throughout the world projecting force acrross ocean.
We can model each offensive technology as evolving defensive capability to protect itself.  Eventually a new revolution in offensive technology defeats the shorter ranged (but more powerful in its sphere of influence) offensive/defensive technology stack.  See David vs. Goliath or Battleships vs Aircraft carriers. Historically the disruptive revolutions in offense defeat the iterative improvements in defense.
Aircraft carriers have evolved an insane level of defense to project offense at this point.  At some point in the future, smart missles (at some level of intelligence/processing power) will defeat aircraft carriers.  Range to cost and offensive to defensive cost ratios.  The question is only when, how, and by whom.  The US military could work to disrupt itself instead of waiting for a thousand (or 10k or 100k) missle barage to take down a carrier in a conflict (but this is so hard to do).
Computing technologies grow exponentially due to Moore's Law, and the deflation of technology costs are outstanding to behold.  At some point we and our enemies will have intelligent and autonomous missles that can be sent acrross the world quickly (intercontiental hypersonic), perhaps to wait around before splitting into a some large number of pieces to indepentently and automously destroy things.  Or we spread out a millions pods that float around all oceans of the world to spit death at people in a grid system, who knows.  Aircraft carriers will not make sense in this world at some future point, like battleships don't now.  
These are long range thoughts and mostly inspired by Friedmans wonderful, if at times short to medium term flawed, The Future of War.  The interesting path is to model technology disruptions, innovator's delimmas and technology revolutions.  What could disrupt the naval aircraft superiority model and what it would take?  Track potential revolutions, and build command isolated units to develop them.  Aircraft carriers sail on for now, but there are many vectors to move post-carrier, and a some day it will happen.

November 4, 2012 at 17:37

The USS George Washington arrived in Manila last week, they do influence countries greatly, and we get more than our tactical and diplomatic use out of them. China can not sustain a war because of their 1 child law is coming to fruition. Each couple has to care for 4 elderly parents, up to 8 additional grandparents, with absolutely no other siblings to assist. A draw on their male military age population would immediately decimate their country. They’re in alot of trouble the way it is…

September 29, 2012 at 22:08

You have unwittingly identified a major dimension of the strategic struggle:  range.  What you are not realizing is that the missile installations push the carrier group farther off shore–everyone knows the carriers will move out of range so they don't get hit by missiles, but just the fact that they have to move away is the point.  The warplanes launched from the carriers also have a limited range, so they become less effective the farther away the carrier group has to operate.  
The example of Taiwan demonstrates this chess match.  I won't bother with a lengthy disquisition here, but will suggest to start by checking out a map of US military installations in the Pacific and overlay the ranges of Chinese missiles. 

mmm + ugh
September 29, 2012 at 13:12

Thanks to Clinton-era sales of missile guidance technology to China, that's not been true for a while. 

September 28, 2012 at 19:43

To quote "Rules of the Game" (not the Renoir film): Jackie Fisher wanted the H.M.S. Invincible; the First Lord of the Admiralty gave him the H.M.S. Dreadnaught; what Fisher really needed for his strategy to work was the H.M.S. Unapproachable but when he got it it was an aircraft carrier.

Jeff Weimer
September 28, 2012 at 15:51

Well, you can take the US weapons systems as fact. We test them. Over and over. Sometimes we even let the results out, just to show potential adversaries their potential.

Buck Bradley
September 28, 2012 at 15:39

There is a "slim chance" something would happen?   Do you know how many carriers the U.S. lost the last time it fought a full-scale war against an actualy world power as opposed to a third world joke?   Hint–the war in question starting on December 7, 1941.   The carriers have proven to be good investments there is no doubt, and they are the single most formidable weapons in the world.   But do not kid yourself that they're not fat juicy targets…..

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